Communication: The Business-end of Design Innovation

communi-splotto.gifby Erik Ehrke
It pretty much goes without saying that “communication is important in business.” Right? And if we are talking about an innovative, design-based business, good communication is regarded as an imperative. We implicitly understand that communication is essential for collaboration. But while this is a plain fact on its surface, its deeper implications within the design process might not be so apparent. I hope to contribute some thoughts about the role of communication in business – specifically businesses that rely on collaborative design to create competitive, sustainable alternatives to the status quo.
As a student in California College of the Arts’ new Design Strategy MBA program, I have been studying the interactions of Design, Business and Communication with increasing appreciation for how intimately these three disciplines can ally with one another. Almost any business could benefit from applied design innovation. Innovation is the single most effective means of creating product or service differentiation. But there are differing degrees of innovation – at its far reaches, innovative thinking can disrupt established markets, define entirely new market segments and create extraordinary market-power. Think iPod. It is precisely this type disruptive innovation – but focused on the triple bottom line (TBL) – that will be necessary across a wide variety of industries if we wish to grow a sustainable “green economy.” The desire for change may ultimately be driven by deep values and existing needs, but it will be effected through designed solutions that competitively meet these criteria within our existing market economy. Here, design can function as a critical tool in this process. Similar to the combined roles of mutation and selection in evolutionary theory, design innovation acts as a type of “change factor” that can replace prior solutions by virtue of unquestionable competitive advantage.

Generally, the more challenging the design enterprise, the more likely it is that the knowledge, perspectives and creativity of different people will be needed. And TBL solutions are challenging! Communication is a critical factor here because it is absolutely necessary to support the knowledge-transfer required to understand the various stakeholders and then develop the best solutions within a collaborative design environment. When multi-disciplinary teams engage in problem-solving, each person comes to the table with different skills, experiences, perspectives, knowledge bases, personalities, etc. Each person basically thinks “in a different language” – regardless of what they are speaking. This is both the primary resource and the most critical challenge of collaborative design work. How can multi-disciplinary teams think and work together effectively and efficiently?
Our dMBA curriculum has included a number of intense, team-based projects where we have had abundant opportunity to explore solutions to this question. One of the many aspects of design-communication that was elaborated throughout, is that the knowledge-transfer involved in collaborative design projects has a “transaction cost” associated with it. And it can be quite high – my personal costs can be measured in the equivalent-value of “late week-nights” and “full weekend days” spent on what is essentially receiving information, contributing-to and processing that information into new project-specific knowledge, and communicating it forward, toward a new solution. In business, these costs could be measured in dollars. But the emphasis on communication efficiency in design should not be regarded so much as being about cost-reduction as it is about capturing the full value of the design team.
In fact, communication is increasingly being recognized as one of the most critical aspects of business and design. This is evidenced by the role communication dynamics play within the emerging field of “Knowledge Management.” Nonaka and Takeuchi (The Knowledge Creating Company Oxford Press, 1995) argue that “converting hunches, perceptions, mental models, beliefs, experiences and other types of specific knowledge into a form that can be communicated and transmitted in formal and systematic language is a key of successful new product innovation.” I think that innovation, by its nature, requires purposefully looking outside of existing contexts and frameworks to create new ways to understand problems and find solutions. Innovation requires more than just “transmitting ideas to others.” It requires a meeting of minds, where communication goes beyond the “ideas” on the table, and grapples with “meaning.” Meaning is explored through examination and development of the conceptual frameworks that lie behind and support the ideas that finally drive design solutions. Working with these frameworks forms a basis of collaborative understanding which can produce significant levels of innovation. The iPod/iTunes system redefined music storage, distribution, and cost structures – precisely by envisioning the possibility to reframe the larger concept of “music ownership” within a new, achievable, technological paradigm.
The highest expression of communication is when we think “together with others” while maintaining our individual faculties of independent assessment. When people fail to first understand one another they can diverge into valueless disagreement based on their intrinsic differences of knowledge and perception. This is where communication most commonly fails – where the scope of possibility narrows to “this OR that” at the exclusion of “this AND that.” The points where the “AND” solution is reflexively omitted are opportunity gaps where possibilities for novel, creative syntheses are lost. So whereas both effective and failed communication always have transaction-costs, failed communication must also account for potentially much larger losses in the form of the “opportunity-costs” of underperformance – failing to accomplish what could have been realized. That is why good communication is the “business-end” of design innovation – it is needed to get the job done as much as to realize the full, inherent value of human capital.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

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